Human Legacy Course/The Classical Age

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Human Legacy Course I
The Classical Age

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Hello and welcome to Lecture 2 of Week 5. In this lecture, we will be discussing the Classical Age of Greece. Our question for the day is:

Why would the creator of a city’s law code leave for 10 years? In the year 594 BC, the leaders of the polis of Athens asked an aristocrat named Solon to write a new law code for the city. The laws they had at that time were extremely harsh, and many people were unhappy with them. Solon drew up the law code that was requested from him, which tried to appeal to both nobles and the lower classes. According to legend, as soon as he was done with the code he left Greece and traveled for 10 years.

Why would Solon leave? The answer was simple. He wanted to be sure that his law code would be effective in keeping order in Athens even if he was not there to enforce it. When Solon returned after a decade’s absence, he found his laws still in place and Athens prospering.

Athenian Democracy edit

The prosperity of Athens was due in large part to its stable and effective government. That government was the world’s first democracy, a form of government run by the people. With the development of democracy around 500 BC, Athens entered its classical age, the period of its great achievements and triumphs.

The Development of Democracy edit

Athens was the birthplace of democracy, but it had not always been a democratic city. Indeed, democracy developed slowly over a period of several centuries. Early in its history, Athens was ruled by kings. Later, the kings were replaced by aristocrats who had both money and power.

Most of Athens’s subjects were poor, though, and had little power over their lives. The gap between rich and poor eventually led to conflict in Athens. To help resolve this conflict, an official named Draco reformed the city’s laws. Draco thought the only way to end unrest was through harsh punishment, a belief reflected in his laws. In fact, however, the harshness of Draco’s laws did not resolve the dispute between classes; they only made it worse.

Another lawmaker, Solon, revised the laws again in the 590s BC, overturning Draco’s harshest laws. Solon outlawed debt slavery and tried to reduce poverty by encouraging trade. His most significant change, however, was in Athens’s government. He allowed all men in Athens to take part in the assembly that governed the city and to serve on the juries that heard trials, but only wealthy men could run for or hold political office. Solon’s laws were the first real step toward democracy in Athens, though it was a very limited democracy.

Solon’s laws relieved the tension in Athens for a time but did not resolve it. Tensions flared up again after a few decades. In 541 BC a politician named Peisistratus took advantage of the renewed conflict to seize power. Peisistratus was a tyrant, a strongman who seized power by force and claimed to rule for the good of the people. Despite his violent rise to power, Peisistratus was popular. People liked that he pushed the aristocrats out of office and increased trade to make Athens richer.

After Peisistratus died, another reformer, Cleisthenes, took over Athens. His reforms set the stage for Athenian democracy. To break up the power of noble families, Cleisthenes divided Athens into 10 tribes based on where people lived. He made these new tribes, not families or social groups, the basis for elections. For example, each tribe elected 50 men to serve on a Council of 500 that proposed laws. Each tribe also elected one of the generals that led the Athenian army.

The Nature of Athenian Democracy edit

As a democracy, Athens was ruled by the people. But not all people were able to take part in the government. Only free male Athenians over the age of 20 who had completed military training were allowed to vote. Women, children, and immigrants had no role in the government; nor did slaves. In the 300s BC only about 10 percent of the total population of Athens could participate in running the city.

Those people who were allowed to take part in the Athenian government were expected to do so fully. They had to:

  • Vote in all elections
  • Serve in office if elected
  • Serve on juries
  • Serve in the military during war.

At its height, the Athenian democracy consisted of three main bodies. The first was an assembly that included all people eligible to take part in the government. This assembly made all of the laws and important decisions for Athens. It met on a particular hill within the city, and all members who were present voted on each measure. This type of system, in which all people vote directly on an issue, is called a direct democracy.

Working closely with the assembly was the second of the main bodies, the Council of 500. The main role of the Council, which had been created by Cleisthenes, was to write the laws that would be voted on by the full assembly.

The third body of the government was a complex series of courts that heard trials and sentenced criminals. Members of these courts, which could number up to 6,000 people, were chosen from the assembly.

Although most governing in Athens was done by the assembly, some elected officials had special roles to play. Among these elected officials were the generals who led the city in war. Another elected official was the archon, who served as the chief of state in Athens. The archon acted as the head of both the assembly and the Council of 500. Archons were elected for a term of one year, though they could be re-elected many times. The archon was seen as a public servant who could be removed from office or punished if he failed to serve the people well.

The Persian Wars edit

Even as democracy was taking its final shape in Athens in the early 400s BC, the city—and the rest of Greece—was plunged into war. The Greek city-states came into conflict with the vast Persian Empire, bringing Greece into war with a much larger and stronger opponent.

Causes of the Conflict edit

The roots of the Persian Wars lay not in mainland Greece but in the region called Ionia in what is now Turkey. Founded as Greek colonies, the Ionian city-states had become some of the largest and wealthiest Greek cities, but they had fallen under Persian rule in the 500s BC.

The Greeks of Ionia, unhappy with Persian rule and wanting independence, rebelled in 499 BC. Faced with a much larger Persian army, they asked their fellow Greeks for help. Among the cities that sent aid was Athens, who supplied ships to the Ionian rebels. Despite this assistance, the Persians put down the revolt. Furthermore, the revolt made Persian emperor Darius angry enough to seek revenge. He planned to punish the Ionians’ allies, especially Athens, by attacking the Greek mainland.

The First Persian Invasion edit

In 490 BC, the Persians set out to fulfill Darius’s plans for revenge. A huge fleet carrying tens of thousands of Persian troops set out for Greece. The fleet came ashore near a town called Marathon not far from Athens. Warned in advance of the Persians’ approach, the Athenians set out to meet their foe.

The Athenians arrived at Marathon quickly and caught the Persians at work unloading their ships. The Athenians charged the beach in a phalanx, a tight rectangle formation in which soldiers held long spears out ahead of a wall of shields. The Persians, caught by surprise, counterattacked, but more Greeks closed in on them from the sides. Though they outnumbered their foe, the Persians retreated.

According to legend, an Athenian messenger ran from Marathon to Athens after the battle to announce the Greeks’ victory. He completed the 26-mile run but died from exhaustion after he delivered the message. This legend inspired the modern marathon race, a 26-mile run that commemorates the messenger’s dedication and athleticism.

Preparations For A Second Invasion edit

The Greek victory at Marathon shocked both Greeks and Persians. The Athenians could not believe that they had defeated a much stronger foe. The Persians, humiliated, were furious. Wanting revenge more than ever, Darius planned a second invasion of Greece, but he died in 486 BC, before he could launch that second invasion. His son Xerxes, vowing to get revenge for his father, continued planning another attack on Greece.

In 480 BC, 10 years after the first invasion, Xerxes set out for Greece. His army included hundreds of thousands of soldiers and sailors together with all their animals, weapons, food, and other supplies. According to ancient Greek accounts, the Persian army was so huge that it took them a week to cross a bridge they built into Greece, though this figure is certainly an exaggeration.

Faced with another invasion, the Athenians called on other Greek city-states to help fight off the Persians. Among the states that responded to the call was Sparta. Though the two cities were bitter rivals, Athens and Sparta agreed to work together to fight the Persians. Athens, which had recently built a large and powerful navy, took charge of the Greeks’ fighting ships. Sparta took charge of the Greeks’ armies.

The Second Persian Invasion edit

As Persian forces marched into Greece, the Greeks worried that they would not have time to prepare their troops for battle. To slow down the Persians, a group of Spartans and their allies gathered in a mountain pass at Thermopylae, through which the Persians would pass to get into Greece. There, the Spartans held off the entire Persian army for several days. In the end, a local resident showed the Persians an alternate path through the mountains, which allowed them to surround and kill the Spartans. Nevertheless, the Spartans’ sacrifice bought time for the Greeks’ defense.

After Thermopylae, the Persians marched south to Athens, which the Greeks had evacuated. The Persians attacked and burned the city but needed their fleet to bring them additional supplies. Not wanting the Persians to get what they needed, a clever Athenian commander lured the Persian fleet into the narrow Strait of Salamis near Athens. Because the Persian ships were so much larger than the Greek vessels, they could not maneuver well in the strait. With their opponents virtually helpless, the Greek warships cut them to pieces. They sank many ships and sent swarms of soldiers onto others. Xerxes, who had brought a throne to the shore to watch the battle from afar, saw his navy go down in defeat.

The Battle of Salamis changed the nature of the war. The Persian army was now stuck in Greece, far from home and short on supplies. Demoralized, they were no longer a match for the Greeks. The next year, in 479 BC, a huge Greek army led by the full might of Sparta crushed the Persians near Plataea. After Plataea, the Persians gave up on their invasion and agreed to a peace settlement. The Greeks had won the Persian Wars.

The Golden Age of Athens edit

As the leaders in the Persian Wars, Athens and Sparta became the two most powerful and influential city-states in Greece. Because the Spartans were not popular with the rest of Greece, Athens eventually became the leading city-state. After the Persian Wars, Athens entered a golden age, an age in which it was the center of Greek culture and politics.

Increased Influence edit

After the Persian Wars, dozens of Greek city-states banded together to defend one another and to punish Persia for the invasion. In theory, this alliance was a league of equals; but as the largest and richest of its members, Athens actually controlled the entire alliance. Because the alliance’s treasury was kept on the islands of Delos, the alliance became known as the Delian League.

As the Delian League’s leader, Athens controlled its ships and money. Many cities were interested in league membership, so the league grew wealthier and more powerful. As its leader, Athens gained more influence in Greece.

Eventually, some league members began to resent Athenian dominance, but Athens would not allow these unhappy members to quit. Any league members who rebelled were attacked by the league fleet, led by Athens, and forced back into the alliance. Before long, the league, in effect, turned into an Athenian empire.

Rebuilding Athens edit

After the Persian Wars, the people wanted to rebuild their city, which had been burned during the fighting. Some of the money for this rebuilding came from within Athens. A substantial amount, though, came from the treasury of the Delian League. The other members of the league were not happy that the Athenians used their collective funds to rebuild their own city, but none was powerful enough to stop Athens.

The rebuilding of Athens began at the top, with Athens’ acropolis. The Athenians built a series of grand temples on the acropolis, the grandest of which was the Parthenon, a grand temple dedicated to the goddess Athena. The Athenians expanded their port, built new roads, and constructed high walls around the city itself. Many people considered the rebuilt Athens, a city of stone and marble, the height of Greek culture and sophistication.

The Age of Pericles edit

Much of the rebuilding of Athens was due to one man—Pericles. A skilled politician and a gifted public speaker, Pericles was elected one of the city’s generals in the 460s BC and was re-elected many times. Through his personal charisma and cleverness, Pericles became the most influential politician in Athens for many years.

Despite Pericles’s own personal power, he was a great champion of democracy. To encourage more people to participate in government, he introduced payment for those who served in public offices or on juries. He also encouraged the Athenians to introduce democracy into other parts of Greece.

Besides being a skilled speaker and politician, Pericles was a great patron of the arts. It was he who commissioned the building of the Parthenon and several other monuments on the Acropolis, and it was his idea to hire great artists and sculptors to decorate them. Pericles wanted Athens to be the most glorious city in Greece, and he wanted its people to be proud of their city. He firmly believed that it had the best government and the noblest people, and he thought that it should have monuments to prove its superiority to other cities.

Life In The Golden Age edit

During the Golden Age, trade brought great wealth to Athens. Merchants from other parts of the world moved to the city, bringing their own foods and customs. As a result, Athens was a very cosmopolitan city. Adding to its appeal were grand festivals, public celebrations, and public events. Athenians could cheer on athletes in the city’s religious games or watch great dramas played out in the city’s theaters. Athens was the heart of Greek culture during this time.

The Peloponnesian War edit

As the leader of the Delian League, Athens was the richest, mightiest polis in Greece. Being rich and mighty, however, also brought the city many powerful rivals. The greatest of these rivals was Sparta, which wanted to limit Athens’ power and end its dominance of Greece.

The Peloponnesian League edit

Like Athens, Sparta was the head of a league of allied city-states. Called the Peloponnesian League, this alliance had been formed in the 500s BC to provide protection and security for its members.

For decades after the Persian Wars, tension built between the Delian and Peloponnesian leagues. Athens and its allies feared the military might of the other league. In return, Sparta feared that Athens’s fleet would stop it and its allies from trading. This mutual fear led Athens and Sparta to declare war on each other in 431 BC. The resulting conflict, known as the Peloponnesian War, lasted many years.

War In Greece edit

For the first several years of the war, neither side gained much of an advantage. Sparta and its allies dominated the land, while Athens and its allies dominated the sea. Realizing that the Spartan army was stronger, the Athenians avoided any battles on land. As a result, neither side could win more than minor victories against the other.

In 430 and 429 BC, a terrible plague struck Athens, changing the course of the war. Among those who died from the plague was Pericles, the city’s leader through the beginning of the war. After the plague ended, fighting heated up for a few years before the Athenians and Spartans agreed to a truce in 421 BC. Peace had come to Greece, at least for a brief time.

Six years later, war broke out again, when Athens attacked one of Sparta’s allies. The Spartans responded, but this time they took to the sea as well as the land. The Spartans destroyed the Athenian fleet, leaving Athens with no choice but surrender in 404 BC.

The Peloponnesian War nearly destroyed Athens. It lost thousands of soldiers, hundreds of ships, huge sums of money, and most of its allies. Sparta, too, was exhausted by the war. It had nearly lost several times and had suffered damage almost as great as Athens’s.

After their victory, Sparta’s army tried to act as Greece’s dominant power. But Sparta’s wealth and resources were badly strained, and its power had worn down. As a result of this strain, the Spartans could not keep control of Greece. The city-state of Thebes defeated Sparta, but it could not maintain control either. The struggle for power in Greece led to a long cycle of warfare that left all of Greece vulnerable to attack. Finally, in the 340s BC Macedonia, a Greek-speaking kingdom to the north, swept in and took control of all of Greece.

Assignment edit

  • Question #1: What were the most significant elements of ancient Athenian democracy?
  • Question #2: How did Athenian government change in the years leading up to the development of democracy?
  • Question #3: Do you think a direct democracy would work today? Why or why not?
  • Question #4: Who ordered the first Persian invasion of Greece? Why did he want to invade?
  • Question #5: What was the ultimate result of the Battle of Marathon?
  • Question #6: How might the Persian Wars have ended differently if the Spartans had not held out at Thermopylae?
  • Question #7: Who was Pericles, and what did he do for the city of Athens?
  • Question #8: Why is the period after the Persian Wars considered a golden age of Athenian history?
  • Question #9: Do you think Pericles was justified in using the Delian League’s money to rebuild Athens? Why or why not?
  • Question #10: What was Athens’s strategy at the beginning of the Peloponnesian War?
  • Question #11: Why did the members of the Peloponnesian League resent Athens?
  • Question #12: How did Greece change after the Peloponnesian War?

Thank you very much for listening to this and goodbye.